You may know the sad story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole—only to arrive in January 1912 to find a Norwegian flag had been planted by explorer Roald Amundsen five weeks prior. Among other setbacks, the Scott expedition was plagued by technical difficulties, infirm ponies, and illness during their 800-mile trek across the Ross Ice Shelf back to their base camp in McMurdo Sound.
Ultimately, all five men perished before they reached the camp. Petty Officer Edgar Evans suffered a head injury, a serious wound on his hand, and frostbite before dying at a temporary campsite on the return journey. Captain Lawrence Oates, suffering severely from frostbite, voluntarily left the camp one night and walked right into a blizzard, choosing to sacrifice himself rather than slow the other men down. Captain Scott, Lieutenant Henry "Birdie" Bowers, and Doctor Edward Adrian Wilson subsequently died in late March of a vicious combination of exposure and starvation.
The makeshift camp in which the last three men died was only 11 miles from a supply depot. When their frozen corpses were discovered on the ice shelf by a search party the following November, a cairn of snow was built around them, tent and all, as there was no soil in which to bury them. A cross made of skis was added to the top. Before they left, surgeon Edward Leicester Atkinson, a member of the search party, left a note in a metal cylinder at the site:
November 12, 1912, Lat. 79 degrees, 50 mins. South. This cross and cairn are erected over the bodies of Captain Scott, C.V.O., R.N., Doctor E. A. Wilson, M.B. B.C., Cantab., and Lieutenant H. R. Bowers, Royal Indian Marine—a slight token to perpetuate their successful and gallant attempt to reach the Pole. This they did on January 17, 1912, after the Norwegian Expedition had already done so. Inclement weather with lack of fuel was the cause of their death. Also to commemorate their two gallant comrades, Captain L. E. G. Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoons, who walked to his death in a blizzard to save his comrades about eighteen miles south of this position; also of Seaman Edgar Evans, who died at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. “The Lord gave and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
But something even more curious happened next.
In the century and change since Scott and his comrades died, the cairn-tomb has been slowly moving. That’s because it was erected on top of a 360-foot-thick section of ice—the Ross Ice Shelf, which is constantly fed by glaciers on either side. As of 2011, according to the Polar Record, it was buried under approximately 53 feet of ice, as the surface accumulates more ice and the bottom of the shelf melts and refreezes. Assuming the rate of accumulation has been approximately the same for the last five years, they’re about 55 feet inside the ice by now.
The north edge of the ice shelf also grows and shifts, as the entire plate moves slowly toward the water’s edge. As such, the cairn, the tent, and the corpses have traveled about 39 miles away from their original geographic location, and they’re still on the move. No one seems to have pinpointed exactly where they are, but glacierologists who have weighed in on the topic generally believe the bodies are still preserved intact [PDF].
Within another 250 years or so, the bodies of Scott, Bowers, and Wilson will have at last traveled to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, where it meets McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea. By then, they’ll be encased in more than 325 feet of ice. The ice is not as thick at the front of the shelf as it is where the cairn began its journey, and so they could be embedded low by the time they get to the water.
It’s tempting to imagine that once the bodies meet the edge of the ice shelf in about two and a half centuries, they’ll just slide out of the melted ice and splash into the ocean. But that’s not quite how it works. As the Ross Ice Shelf advances further out to sea, every 50 to 100 years it can no longer support its own weight and the shelf calves off an iceberg. The particular chunk of the ice shelf holding the remains of Scott and his men is expected to break off into an iceberg (or possibly a mini version called a growler or bergy bit) before they get to the front of the ice shelf at the water. Back in 2011, the Polar Record forecasted that the special day will fall in 2250 or thereabouts.
If all goes as predicted, this means that Captain Scott, Lieutenant Bowers, and Doctor Wilson will then get to ride around the Ross Sea—and later the Southern Ocean—inside of an iceberg about 350 years after their deaths.
Depending on where the berg with the British bodies breaks off from the ice shelf, it will probably stay local and head toward the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands. The iceberg will almost certainly melt someday, be it in a decade or a century. Then, the dead men will be free-floating in the water, where, depending on a host of circumstances, they’ll stay until currents and sea animals have their way with them. Their skeletons are then predicted to wash up somewhere, possibly the South Shetlands—but who can say for sure? All we can really do is keep an eye out for them in the area in about 250 years.
Although the deaths of Robert F. Scott and his team were tragic, it’s possible to imagine that as explorers, they might have approved of the far-out adventure their bodies would endure—centuries after their final one got cut a bit short.